“I want a society where we will have politics & not a sectarian pantomime” (Alf McCreary in 1976)

In his autobiography Behind the Headlines, Alf McCreary recalls his editor’s leading article in the Belfast Telegraph on 5 November 1968 in which Jack Sayers wrote:

The threat to Northern Ireland’s future is not … the IRA or even Nationalism. It comes from Protestant Ulstermen who will not allow themselves to be liberated from the delusion that every Roman Catholic is their enemy.

[Ed – some blog post readers will stop at this point and immediately jump down to the comments section to discuss!]

Alf McCreary Behind the HeadlinesAlf McCreary has had a long a varied career, from being editor of the Gown at Queen’s University, journalist and columnist for the Belfast Telegraph reporting on major stories during the Troubles as well as covering the religious beat, witnessing and telling the story of relief efforts in the third world, and exiting the printed press to become Queen’s University’s Information Officer during a stormy period in the institution’s history.

His recently published autobiography avoids the temptation to simply become a set of rose-tinted recollections about news stories. Instead Alf is not afraid to allow some self-criticism to enter his narrative.

A strong personal thread runs through the book evaluating the impact on his life and relationships of being born “out of wedlock” in the village of Bessbrook. While adopted by his grandfather and concluding that he overcame “these emotional obstacles”, Alf describes the “unwarranted shame” that he felt along with his mother:

… it was a huge struggle to overcome this perceived early ‘handicap’ of illegitimacy in the Northern Ireland of the Forties. Nor was it easy for a young boy to understand the background when he was told that the girl whom he had been reared to accept as his ‘sister’ was in reality his mother.

Sporting success and a great English teacher developed confidence in a young Alf McCreary. His first year at university involved passing exams to get onto the Modern History honours course as well as playing for the First XI hockey team and dating the then Miss Northern Ireland. He resurrected the Gown student newspaper after it was sued for libel and ended up as a graduate trainee in the Belfast Telegraph.

I have never believed in horoscopes since the time I had to write them for a couple of days because we have lost the agency copy.

The editorial position of the Belfast Telegraph of the late 1960s seems familiar to the paper’s take on NI politics and society forty five years later. Leader-writing direction came in the form of a sharp command to “give Terrance O’Neill a boost” or “write three pars in support of the New University”.

Alf McCreary’s faith also sews a thread through the three hundred page book. While never a member of the Corrymeela Community, he “approved of its objectives” and wrote a book about its history.

Northern Ireland politicians might want to check if Alf McCreary is available for speech writing when they read part of his Lenten address in Belfast Cathedral on 16 March 1976:

We have a short fuse and a long memory, we look forward, not back, to 1690 and 1916. We lack vision, we lack compassion, we lack statesmen, we lack politicians. We even lack ideas …

I look forward to a society where I can walk without fear in Royal Avenue, or East Belfast or the Bogside. I want a society where we will have politics and not a sectarian pantomime, where tomorrow is more important than today.

I look forward to the day when we in Ulster will use our brains (and we have them) and not our brawn; where power will come from the pen and not the sword; from the ballot box and not the barrel of a gun. I look forward to the day when I can look into the eyes of my children and know that this is a fit place for a child to live.

Alongside some hard-to-forget incidents and atrocities like Bloody Sunday and the Kingsmills Massacre – a story with personal connections for the author – Alf also shines a light on less-well-remembered events like one of the earliest meetings between church leaders and the Provisional IRA in December 1974. Bishop Arthur Butler, Canon Bill Arlow, Rev Eric Gallagher (former Methodist President), Rev Jack Weir (clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly) acted on “their own initiative” and endured criticism from Unionists and denominational bodies for their meeting in a hotel in Feakle, County Clare in December 1974.

As a child at school I remember reading Alf McCreary’s book Tried by Fire about peacebuilders. It turns out that was merely one of thirty or so books he has penned over the years. Survivors told the stories of innocent victims of the Troubles. During the Troubles, Alf McCreary was supplying reports to some English papers as well as the Christian Science Monitor and Time magazine.

On a 2011 trip to Rwanda, Alf met Michael Kayatiba, a Tutsi, who had lost 56 members of his family during the genocide. Michael told him:

We are all children of God, and we need to come out from our ethnic mindsets, and to repent and to forgive, in order to transform our society.

Just one of many pertinent reflections that jumped out of this autobiography as I read it while Northern Ireland politicians continued to discuss processes to “deal with” our past in the Haass/O’Sullivan talks.

Spanning decades of journalism, from back in the day when reporters phoned in their copy from remote locations to more contemporary times with “more outlets, more commentators, instant experts and interactive interlopers who often exhibit more bias than expertise,” Alf McCreary’s story was unexpectedly gripping. Between writing television columns, numerous overseas visits on behalf of Christian Aid, his years at QUB outside journalism, and publishing a shelf full of books, the son of Bessbrook’s autobiography is at times humorous, often perceptive and very compelling.

I’ve seen copies of Behind the Headlines stacked up in Waterstones and Easons so if you’re looking for a last minute present … and no doubt it’ll be back in stock on Amazon after the holidays to soak up your vouchers!

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